Research Revolution Aims to Avert Food Crisis
The North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative launches a bold, innovative effort to face down emerging threats to the world’s food security.
By Dee Shore
To satisfy the needs of a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, experts predict farmers must produce 70 percent more food and fiber than they do today.
Such a jump in production, some say, requires nothing short of a revolution in agricultural sciences. Farmers need new, science-based technology and practices that lead to higher yields on less land, using less water, while safeguarding the environment.
The North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative at NC State is quickly positioning itself to be a leader of that revolution.
Through the initiative, university researchers, teachers and extension specialists are coming together with farmers and other agribusiness and biosciences professionals to find ways to make North Carolina an international hub for plant sciences innovation.
“The initiative is reformulating everything we do at the university that touches plants,” says Steve Lommel, associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “That’s food, animal feed, production agriculture, organic agriculture, food systems, processing — the whole thing, from the ground to the dinner plate.”
The initiative also encourages leading scientists in plant-related disciplines — from biochemistry to horticultural and crop sciences — to collaborate with engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, economists and others in generating big, workable ideas that make economic sense.
Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Richard Linton notes that North Carolina and NC State’s Centennial Campus have a number of assets making them the ideal places for innovation in plant sciences research, teaching and extension.
Considered the third most agriculturally diverse state in the nation, North Carolina produces — and therefore tests — a tremendous range of agricultural crops. Indeed, the college and its government partner, the North Carolina Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, operate a network of 18 research stations where field trials are conducted in a range of soil types and climates.
And through the university’s Cooperative Extension centers in all of the state’s 100 counties, farmers have direct access to information and counsel about the latest developments in agricultural science and technology.
Another advantage Linton cites is NC State’s location in the Research Triangle, home to three of the world’s top five agricultural biosciences industry leaders as well as more than 50 life sciences companies.
Supporting Linton’s claims is an economic feasibility study conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute. Nowhere else, Battelle reported, has its Technology Partnership Practice seen such a “promising convergence of assets poised to take advantage of large-scale expanding markets.”
Realizing the Promise
To turn that promise into reality in time to avert global food shortages, scientists need to start thinking and working in new ways, says Becky Boston, an NC State plant scientist. Researchers can’t afford to work in disciplinary silos; instead, they need to augment the expertise of their disciplines with the problem-solving creativity that can arise from close communication and collaboration with others, she observes.
That collaboration is already in motion. Right now, four task forces with representatives from academia, government and industry are working together to develop a road map to guide the initiative’s next steps, including a $160 million Plant Sciences Research Complex to be built on Centennial Campus.
“We need early science that leads to big discoveries as well as short- to intermediate-term work that has an impact on growers in a quicker time frame.” Charles Hall, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association
Among those participating in the task forces is Charles Hall, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association. The state’s farmers have lagged behind the rest of the nation when it comes to soybean yield gains, so the initiative should tackle both short- and long-term agricultural problems, he says.
“We need early science that leads to big discoveries as well as short- to intermediate-term work that has an impact on growers in a quicker time frame,” Hall says. He also says he believes the initiative can help build better, faster models for commercializing agricultural technology and innovation.
On the Fast Track
Hall is one of many advocates who’ve bought into the initiative’s vision. With broad support from the agricultural community, the new Plant Sciences Research Complex has been on the fast track since 2015, when the North Carolina General Assembly approved its inclusion in a statewide bond referendum passed by voters. The referendum earmarked $85 million in bond funding for the building.
The project also garnered broad support from the agricultural industry, with some 40 organizations committing more than $9 million. The nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation also provided a $45 million grant.
Project manager Geoff Bock says architects are designing the 199,000-square-foot complex to be as innovative as the research that will be done within it.
Unlike traditional university buildings, it won’t house a distinct organizational unit, such as a college or department. Instead, it’s being designed as a flexible home for successive project-based teams tackling emerging issues in agriculture and plant science.
To explain what such teams might look like, Boston points to several ongoing collaborations, including electrical and computer engineering professor Cranos Williams’ collaboration with plant biologist Terri Long to use advanced computer tools to find out how plants respond to stresses such as low iron levels.
The modeling algorithm they developed with their colleagues at NC State and the University of California, Davis, provides insight into which individual genes are involved in a given biological response as well as which environmental factors influence the gene’s behavior. The tool allows biologists to narrow the field from thousands of possible genes to a much smaller subset that’s easier — and faster — to test.
This algorithm enabled researchers to spend weeks rather than decades to identify the genes and interactions relevant to the iron deficiency response in the model plant Arabidopsis. It’s just that kind of real-world problem solving that the Plant Sciences Initiative is designed to spur.
“The most important thing is bringing the right people together and encouraging interdisciplinary work,” Williams says.
Entomologist Hannah Burrack agrees. She’s spearheading a nationwide effort aimed at vanquishing the spotted wing Drosophila, a tiny invasive Asian insect that’s now taking a big bite out of U.S. fruit farmers’ profits.
The Big Picture
In describing the problem the Drosophila project attempts to address, Burrack recounts the fabled dilemma of men encountering an elephant in the dark: Those who feel the legs think they are among trees; those who are close to the tail believe they’ve found a broom; and those near the trunk are sure they’re grabbing a downspout.
Just as these men struggled to make sense of the pieces they’d found, Burrack says agricultural scientists working independently across the country have struggled to meld independent research findings into a cohesive, big-picture solution to the spotted-wing problem.
The fly — about the size of a sesame seed — began arriving in the North America in economically significant numbers in 2008, laying eggs in soft-skinned fruits such as blueberries and raspberries. Because buyers have been known to reject a farmer’s entire crop when they find evidence of just one larva, growers have resorted to using the only weapon they currently have: heavy doses of insecticides.
But scientists working on the problem know that solution isn’t sustainable economically or environmentally, Burrack says. That’s why 18 investigators from 13 institutions in nine states decided to come together to build a suite of alternative tools that will help growers now and in the long term.
The $6.7 million grant-funded effort spans the agricultural technology pipeline — from fundamental biological research to the dissemination of new information and technology to farmers — and it involves biologists, geneticists, extension specialists, computer scientists, economists and others.
“The reason the project is so large and broad in scope is that the problem is large,” causing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual agricultural losses, Burrack says. “And it’s something that can’t be effectively addressed in just one state or by one group of scientists, because the biology of the pest varies based on where it’s occurring and the host it’s feeding on.
The alternative is continuing to work on smaller-scale local or regional projects focused on different parts of the problem. “In doing that, we run the risk of seeing different parts of the animal and coming to different conclusions. And that can be confusing to growers,” Burrack adds.
Burrack expects her project to have implications beyond the fly problem. By bringing students into direct contact with industry, it will help prepare tomorrow’s scientific leaders to collaborate with others outside their field to solve complex agricultural challenges well into the future, she says.
The same should be the case for partnerships forged by the Plant Sciences Initiative, she says. Indeed, the possibility of bringing more students into earlier contact with industry is what led one BASF executive to agree to co-chair an initiative task force related to workforce preparedness.
“In looking at the issue, we have some gaps and saw some needs for earlier, more structured, more coordinated involvement of students with industry,” says Paul Rea, BASF senior vice president of crop protection for North America. Through the initiative, “NC State has a real opportunity to emerge as the leader in talent development for agriculture, preparing students to be job-ready, willing to take on big, global challenges, able to think creatively.
“It’s not just the technical knowledge that makes a difference anymore,” Rea says. “It’s that ability to collaborate and communicate and work in an environment where you may have only have part of the solution.”
Dan Weathington, executive director of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association, agrees that the initiative’s out-of-the-box thinking will help produce well-rounded agricultural leaders. He says the initiative has the potential to create “a definite return in increasing yields, helping us to increase our bottom line and in helping prepare our kids.
“It’s an investment not only in our farms, but our state and our future.”